Translated by Debbie Nathan
My Grandfather, Bunem the Kosher Butcher, of Blessed Memory
My grandfather was one of the four oldest kosher butchers in the city. He performed his duties until he was very elderly. When he started feeling that his hands were shaking, he asked to be released from his butchering obligations, and the Kehillah decided to give him an honorary pension.
But until he was very old, he continued to perform a function that he did not want to and could not relinquish. This was his role as leader of the morning prayers on High Holidays in the big synagogue, and also of blessing the new month whenever it fell on Sabbath. To this day, those who survived the Holocaust and remember the period talk about the impression his praying made upon them.
Grandfather did not have an especially big or trained voice like a cantor or singer. But there was something deeply moving about his praying. His recitations provoked a real outpouring from the soul. It felt as though a true emissary was standing at the lectern -- one who petitioned God on behalf the congregation, the community and even the entire Jewish people. You could hear how the women would come from praying and voice their impressions with a quiet sigh: Oy! Today Mr. Bunem prayed that utmost salvation and solace should come to the Jews.
On Sabbath when he wasn't praying in the synagogue, he prayed at the study house of the GerHassids, where he had a place of honor near those of its leaders. Back then I was in the thick of things, having just got involved with the library and other societies. Even so, I faithfully studied Talmud lessons every day with Grandfather. They were replete with moral lessons. He tried every argument to discourage any break or deviation from traditional Jewish customs. He tried to influence the young people, many of whom had begun to pull away from the conventional, traditionally pious path.
Here an interesting phenomenon should be noted. Though Grandfather was a strongly principled and extremely pious Jew, you could tell that he had been affected by the new winds that were starting to blow. He did not oppose those winds with anti-Zionist methods the way the Nuturei-Karta did -- which was the custom in certain Orthodox circles. Instead, he took another tack. In order to preserve most of the structure, he tried to make minor concessions and take lenient positions.
I remember the following episode: One Sabbath, a guest traveled from Warsaw to Zyrardow. He was a Jew who was known as a Ger Hassid, and he prayed in the Ger synagogue. But after a while he went to ruin -- he started dressing in the European style and became an activist in the central committee of the Mizrahi (Religious Zionists) in Poland. This was Mr. Leybish Shteranski, who would later come to be known as the Mizrahi administrator in the Warsaw Kehillah, as well as an instructor for the Palestine Foundation Fund in Poland.
He came to visit his home town and got an urge to pray in his Ger synagogue, as he had for many years. This was a serious problem for the synagogue wardens. On the one hand he was a visitor, and a guest should be honored by being called to the Torah to read. But on the other hand his European clothing and well-groomed, trimmed beard did not harmonize with the rest of the group in the Ger synagogue. He did not fit into the order of things.
The head warden of the Ger synagogue back then was Mr. Reubn Bromberg, who was esteemed by all. I remember I was standing near Grandfather during negotiations between him and the Gers about how to deal with this problem. To my delight, (my sympathies at that time were already on the side of short clothes and short beards) Grandfather decided to let the guest read the Torah.
On Sabbath at the evening meal, the row about the guest turned into a terrible storm at the Ger synagogue. How in the world had it come to pass that this Mizrahi leader was called to read the Torah at a Ger house of study? I remember how Grandfather, in his quiet, gentle tone, tried to defend his point of view and quench the incendiary mood. He argued that allowing a Torah reading had avoided the sin of shaming someone in public. If the visitor had not been called to read the Torah, he surely would have felt humiliated. Besides, the visitor did work for the Land of Israel. And even if he did so with secularists, he should still be reckoned as a having merit in the eyes of God.
Then there was the inauguration of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which was celebrated with great enthusiasm by the Jewish community in Poland. A similar celebration took place in Zyrardow, conducted with greetings and speeches. Of course, all the Zionist organizations in the city were among the speakers, including Mr. Yakov Fayvl Grinboym, a Ger Hassid and an administrator in the Kehillah. The previous Sabbath, this Orthodox administrator's action had provoked a storm in the Ger synagogue. Some there were incensed. For the sin of praising a non-kosher entity like a university, they ordered that Mr. Grinboym should simply be expelled from the synagogue. Here again, Grandfather came down on the side of the modernizers, the compromisers. The university, he argued, had been created to turn out Jewish doctors, and no one would deny that a Jewish doctor is a very useful thing, in Israel and throughout the world. Therefore, it surely was no sin to celebrate the creation of a university.
Grandfather would come over everyday and read the Jewish daily papers Haynt (Today) or Der Moment, which his enlightened grandchildren brought into the house. He knew about all sides of issues having to do with Jewish life. I used to get special satisfaction from seeing how often Grandfather got interested in reading an article by Nahum Sokolov in the Friday issue of Haynt, thereby savoring Sokolov's lively, keen style. He enjoyed it even when he was not of one mind with the author's ideas.
Until his very last years, when his health started failing him, he refused to give up his Saturday afternoon Talmud lessons in the synagogue, where he taught Talmudic Agadahs to the people. When he could no longer go out, he sat in his room and devoted himself to study. But the room was always full of people who came to him about various civic affairs and quite often even for counsel on very personal matters. His clear mind and common sense never left him until his last days.
On the last Rosh Hashona before his death he was so weak that he could not go out to pray anymore. A long line of people who had came to his home for a New Year's blessing caught the attention of some non-Jewish neighbors. When they learned what it was all about, they, too, came to Grandfather and asked him to bless them for the Jewish New Year. He died about a year before the outbreak of World War II, surrounded with the honor of his children, grandchildren and extended family. The Jewish community in Zyrardow truly mourned the departure of this person from bygone times -- times from which so few people remained who remembered the traditional life that once characterized and personified Polish Jewry.
With the total annihilation and devastation of the Jewish population in Poland and our home town, Zyrardow, the graves of those who were closest to us were abandoned and wiped off the face of the earth. May these lines be like a symbolic gravestone that soars into the air so that no hostile force can destroy it.
Rabbi Yosef Kupyets, of Blessed Memory
With his odd appearance and clothing, he stood out from all the other Jews in Zyrardow. Even though he spent forty years in the honored office of rabbinical law judge in Zyrardow, he never liked to wear the ornate rabbi's hat or the wide, rabbinical caftan. The only concession that he allowed himself -- to indicate the importance of his rabbinical functions -- was to wear a velvet hat. Many Jews wore it only to honor the Sabbath, but he did so even on weekdays.
He was often seen on the street with his long, black caftan and his hands stuck in a prayer belt during and after praying, and with his disheveled white beard with thick, black eyebrows. He stayed as close as possible to the wall, with eyes downcast and looking all around, so that, God forbid, he would not come too close to a passing female. To accommodate any woman who accidentally got too near, he would chivalrously yield the right of way, even when doing so forced him into the middle of the street, where the noise of the wagons surely muddled his thoughts, which were always turned toward heaven.
Though unconcerned with the larger world -- which he stubbornly ignored -- he displayed intense persistence and strong will when defending the principles he considered sacred: pious, traditional Judaism with all its restraints and barriers, without any of the compromises whatsoever that had appeared in recent times.
In the 1920s, during the economic boom and ever stronger activity of the worldwide Jewish communal movements, from the Zionist to the far left socialist groups, he was always the person who held religious Hassids to their obligations and alerted them when they should oppose and stop the spread of urban life and the influence of non-religious Jewish organizations -- the evil spirits, as he called them.
He was a Ger Hassid, and more than once in the Ger synagogue, he called the Torah reading to a halt and urged Hassids to struggle against the spread of secular organizations in the city. I remember how one time, on Yom Kippur after the morning prayers, he ran into the Ger synagogue, extremely agitated and indignant, in an uproar about how, not far from the Ger synagogue, young people at the Jewish workers union were openly eating a mitog on the day of the sacred Yom Kippur fast.
Naturally this provoked a clamor in the synagogue. Two volunteers were quickly found to go to the union with Rabbi Yosef Kupyets to see what was going on. Once at the office, they looked through the open windows toward the courtyard. Inside was a young man at a table, speaking before a small gathering. The twenty or so young men and women were quite astounded by the Hassids' arrival and did not know how to interpret this visit from their unexpected guests. It turned out that Rabbi Yosef's information was not quite right. Instead of a mitog at the union, it was a miting about the significance of the religious holidays. Incidentally, the meeting was not very well attended because the secular people were at their own meeting: an anti-religion gathering at another location, where they were partying on Yom Kippur.
One of the rabbinical judge's good deeds was to fight with great fervor and zeal so that Jews in his city would not break the Sabbath. Every Friday night, he could be seen going into the Jewish shops and businesses and forcing merchants to close their stores in time to light the candles. Often the shopkeepers had to sacrifice their best sales of the week in order not to cross Rabbi Yosef.
Here I will recount one incident that made a deep impression on me. It was a Saturday at the end of the summer, when big posters in the Jewish parts of town announced that on a certain Saturday the famous and very popular civic leader from the Left-wing Labor Zionists, Comrade Zrubl, would be coming from Warsaw to give a lecture in a big public auditorium. Rabbi Yosef saw this as a frank violation of the Sabbath, especially as it was the Sabbath before Yom Kippur. The rabbinical judge decided to take a personal stand right by the entrance of the auditorium, and -- in a very contemporary manner, I think -- to picket the lecture. He thought that by Standing Watch, he would stop community leaders and young people from religious homes from attending the lecture. At first it did seem that the rabbinical judge had prevailed. Many people, especially youth from pious homes, trembled at the idea of clashing with their parents. They walked in groups on the other side of the street, taking a wait and see attitude toward the outcome of the rabbinical judge's intervention. But little by little, some individuals from the group broke the blockade and, half ashamed, sneaked into the hall. Their example encouraged many of the other, weaker ones to enter the lecture more boldly.
Great sadness and gloom shone from the eyes of the old rabbinical judge. Until now, the young people, his young people, had vacillated. Now he saw how they boldly, openly, quickly, hastily -- as though to transcend all conflict and temptation -- stepped over the threshold of the big lecture hall. Like a boulder flooded by a coursing river, the rabbinical judge stood in the middle of the sidewalk while the storming, human tidal waves flowed freely from all sides, seeking to carry everything with them. I was one of the last to enter the hall. Our eyes met for an instant. For a second, his eyes mirrored more surprise and amazement than sorrow and pain. Then he whispered some words that I managed to make out: You too? Bunem the Butcher's grandson?!
When I looked sideways a second later, I saw Rabbi Yosef slowly striding out in the direction of his house. One hand was stuck in his prayer belt and the other was in his left coat pocket. His head was hunched to his shoulders, bent lower than ever before. A few weeks later, he passed away.
Dr. Avrom Nayman, of Blessed Memory
He was a tall, affable young man with gentle black eyes set in a pale face that expressed both sensitivity and dignity. His appearance harmonized completely with his native intelligence and an upbringing that made him sympathetic and respectful to whatever people and groups he came in contact with. He was from an established, business-owning family: His father, Moyshe Nayman, had a bakery in his own house on a street that was devoid of Jews, on Familijna Street. It was inhabited by Polish factory workers in one-story red brick little houses with little green fences around them and small vegetable gardens by each one.
His father was considered one of the most powerful and well-to-do people in the city. Even so, it was a big effort and sacrifice to provide an education to his son Avrom, who was one of three children. For Avrom to study medicine at the university, during a time of sharpening anti-Semitism in Poland, was an unreachable goal obtained by only a few persistent individuals who put forth great effort. This compelled his parents to make a major material sacrifice by sending him off to France to study medicine.
Avrom spent his vacations at home in Zyrardow. Since I was active then in a certain political organization, I was gratified when Avrom Nayman, together with Avrom Yakubovitsh, and Lozer the Comic's Son -- at that time a student at the Polytechnic -- asked me to help them organize a Zyrardow youth and student literary circle to study Jewish history and literature. They organized a group of about twenty gimnazye and other students, who had very little exposure until then to Jewish history. Now they were looking for a way to acquaint themselves with Jewish problems and with questions of a general and literary or civic nature.
I remember the first two evening meetings of the circle, in the office of the Labor Zionists. The group was called the The Literary Youth Club and there was a speaker about Problems of Jewish Literature. The lecture, which dealt with a general Jewish topic was foreign and novel for the club. But their curiosity and willingness to learn about Jewish problems helped blur all linguistic and psychological borders between them and the Jewish community.
Avrom Nayman and Avrom Yakubovitsh managed to attract all the Jewish students and youth in the city. Of the activists I remember A. Sarna, then a young high school student and today a teacher in Israel; Dovid Flint, who later became a medical doctor; the Bloshtayn sisters; one of Gutglas's sons (he married one of the Bloshtayns and today is in France); the young and very intelligent high school student Lalek Margolis, one of the Margolis brothers, who lives in Israel today. For hours in the office and during late-night walks on the quiet, half-empty streets and lanes of our town, we would hold discussions. We focused on every question regarding the situation and problems of the Jews.
Like a thirsty man at a spring, Avrom Nayman drank in every piece of news and information that had anything to do with Jewish life. He had lived until then in a non-Jewish neighborhood and had been occupied with too many other ideas and problems in his wholly Gentile surroundings to be able to take up and understand our day-to-day Jewish reality.
With the coming of Hitler's Holocaust, all of our activity was disrupted. Avrom Nayman shared the fate of our entire Zyrardow community: he and his family were forced into the Warsaw ghetto. Being a doctor, he got a position in the Jewish hospital on Czysta, which operated in the sealed ghetto. Thanks to his qualifications and skills, and especially thanks to his devoted, self-sacrificing attention to his duties, he quickly became one of the hospital administrators. He really distinguished himself in this post. He was loved and respected by the entire staff. He also became the favorite of the patients, who considered him a warm, devoted friend and protector who gave all his youthful energy to aid the sick and everyone else he could do anything at all to help in those trying times.
But fate would not keep him at work there for long. Along with the cheerless tidings that came every day in that dark time, the tiny remnant of Zyrardowers in the Warsaw ghetto received the sad news that the sensitive, noble Avrom Nayman was no longer with us. While carrying out his duties as a doctor, he contracted typhus and died.
His death provoked an extraordinary stir, even in the Warsaw ghetto, where death hardly made an impression on anyone. Because Dr. Avrom Nayman had been a frequent and pleasant guest in all the Jewish houses and apartments, he was beloved by all. Thousands accompanied his funeral over the sealed, mute Warsaw streets. They wept over the hard loss of a dear and true young friend. Along with thousands of escorts, there was also a small group from Zyrardow who had shared many years of friendship with him, and mutual dreams for a brighter, more beautiful world. Here we saw the final, horrible end of our youthful fantasies.
Along with those of all our nearest and dearest who were so tragically cut down, may his name be esteemed for generations hence.
Yosl Vagner one of the first
Jewish residents of Zyrardow.
|Bunem the Kosher Butcher, of Blessed Memory the beloved old cantor at morning services in the house of study during High Holidays, and the excellent blower of the shofar (ram's horn).|
|Page 309:||The Shteranski family at their summer house in Zyrardow (killed in the ghetto)[308-5].|
|Page 310:||Dovid the Kosher Butcher, of blessed memory, son-in-law of Bunem the Kosher Butcher, who in later years inherited his father-in-law's position in the house of prayer and also taught the Agadas of the Talmud to the simple, pious Jewish masses.|
Translated by Curt Leviant My father and teacher, Reb Zalman Klepfisz, was one of the most notable people in Jewish Zhirardov in the years before and after the First World War. He represented the transition from the old lifestyle to the new mode and ideas that slowly began to crystallize in town; and his rich, colorful personality affected the town's development.
My father was born in 1884, in Shtzutzin (Szczuczyn) in the Lomza district, where his maternal grandfather Reb Heschel Shapiro, served as rabbi. Stemming from a noble familial lineage, Reb Zalman was a descendant of the famous Warsaw rabbi, Reb Samuel Zeinvil Klepfisz. From his earliest youth he displayed brilliance in learning, and after studying in the great yeshivas of Poland and Lithuania, he was ordained as a rabbi. He was also drawn to the Haskalah and secular education, and to the Love of Zion movement.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, my father moved to Zhirardov, for he had met and married a native girl, Bracha Friedman. My beloved mother came from one of the finest Hasidic families in town. Her grandfather Shmelke was one of the first Jewish residents of Zhirardov in the nineteenth century, and was therefore nicknamed Adam by the townspeople. My maternal grandfather, Hillel Friedman, a patriarchal figure in the town, was a sugar merchant and a very important businessman. He was one of the builders of the community and the beloved prayer leader during the Days of Awe. His wife, Hannah, was known in the entire region for her open and good heart.
Immediately after his arrival in Zhirardov, the house of Reb Zalman Klepfisz became a center for Torah and Haskalah. Scholars would come to him to talk about holy texts. Hasidim from the stiebl knew that no one could surpass his proficiency in the teachings and mysteries of the Hasidism. Young maskilim, the enlightened, would discuss with him the latest works of Hebrew and Yiddish literature. In addition to his expertise in all branches of Jewish knowledge and his extraordinary acumen was his rare talent as a conversationalist. His conversations excelled with great wisdom and sparkled with the brilliance of his thought. A wonderful synthesis of all streams of the Jewish spirit glowed in his soul.
The outbreak of the First World war and the expulsion of the Jews from Zhirardov broke the economic foundations of the Friedman family. Their sugar business was ruined. My father spent the years of homelessness in Warsaw with his family. After the defeat of the Russian Army, when Jews were permitted to return to Zhirardov, my father began to build his life anew upon the ruins.
And here begins his blessed activity for the community.
First, he founded a Hebrew school. This was the first modern cheder in the history of Jewish Zhirardov. A divinely-graced pedagogue, thoroughly imbued with a sense of responsibility for the future of the people and with a deep love for Torah, my father threw himself heart and soul into educational work for the younger generation. He understood that the old-fashioned cheders were no longer suitable for the young people in the modern era. New winds began to blow through the little towns. The old, established way of life had begun to crumble. And to prevent the generations-long structure of the Jewish traditions from degenerating, the youth had to be addressed in a new, readily understandable language and approached with modern methods.
Lacking sufficient financial resources, but believing strongly in the nobility of his idea, Reb Zalman took up the call of the hour.
Even the physical appearance of the school showed that this institution differed from all the other cheders in town. The furnishings were modern; in addition to blackboards on the wall there were desks and chairs. No longer did the students sit around long tables as in old-fashioned Talmud Torahs.
Spiritually, the school was on a high level, and it could have been included among the exemplary educational institutions of the period. The subjects were prayers, Pentateuch, Rashi and Talmud. But much attention was also given to the Bible and the Hebrew language.
My father was one of the wonderful Jewish educators that Polish Jewry produced during the breakup period in its history. He developed the character of his pupils: he strengthened their Jewish consciousness and pride, and inculcated them with the spark of sacrifice, of Kiddush Hashem, a spark that glowed in them with so much ecstasy later during the Holocaust.
In addition to serving the Hebrew school, my father also offered evening courses for young adults, which attracted many young men and women and gave them the opportunity to learn Jewish history and the works of the Jewish spirit in Hebrew and in Yiddish. For Yiddish too, my father would say, had become sanctified with Jewish tears. At this school the students soaked up love for all aspects of Jewish culture. Spreading Torah learning was Reb Zalman's ideal. And his students' affection gave him great satisfaction and joy.
The Hebrew school, which educated hundreds of children, existed for nearly seven years. Many of those who studied with this great Jew and idealistic educator live today in various corners of the world. They doubtless carry in their hearts a feeling of gratitude to their teacher for enriching their inner life.
Naturally, my father had many devoted friends in the town; he had a close friendship with the rabbi, Reb Menachem Mendel Albeck. He had followers and admirers in all circles of Jewish society among the Talmud scholars, the intelligentsia, as well as among the artisans and workingmen, whom he attracted with his ahavas yisroel, love for all Jews, and his warmth for all human beings. Regrettably, however, my father was not understood or appreciated by everyone in the community. There were Jews of the older generation who looked askance at his activities and at his new directions in Jewish education. Looking back, his fate was like that of many great men of his generation. But this small-minded criticism did not deter him or diminish his activism. With courage and endless devotion he continually performed his great work for Torah and Jewish culture.
The Balfour Declaration and the increased efforts for the rebuilding of the Land of Israel gave new content to my father's life. Reb Zalman's heart, which anguished over every Jewish trouble, was encouraged by the great national hope. And in the souls of his students were surely engraved the lessons he taught about the mysterious love which the Jewish people have always felt for their holy land. He also lectured at open meetings and called for the most far-reaching help for the reconstruction of Eretz Yisrael.
Everything my father said came from the bottom of his heart. That is why his Torah reading was so impressive and unforgettable. Those who heard him reading the Book of Lamentations on Tisha B'Av always remembered his plaintive and stirring melody as he chanted about the destruction of the Holy temple. And those who heard the melody he used when chanting the Song of Songs at Passover always recalled the joy of Jewry's magnificent past on its own soil.
My father published articles in the Hebrew and Yiddish press inWarsaw, in Hatsefirah, in the Warsaw Tageblatt, in Moment, and in other periodicals. In his articles he discussed various issues concerning Jewish life; they appeared under the pseudonyms S.Yitzchaki, S. Zalman, and other names. Great rabbinic authorities of the generation and famous writers exchanged letters with him. Among his admirers in the rabbinic world were Reb Shlomo David Kahana, Reb Chaim Leib Yudkovsky, Reb Moshe Soloveichik, and other great scholars.
Among his friends in writers' circles were H.D. Nomberg, B. Yeushzon, S.Pyetrushka, and many others. The Hebrew philologist Aaron Jacob Shapiro, author of the Book of Grammar would consult my father about philological problems; he sent him the Book of Grammar in manuscript, requesting his opinion of the work. In the leading circles of the Jewish spirit in Poland, Reb Zalman Klepfisz was considered a man of comprehensive erudition, with encyclopedic knowledge and a phenomenal memory.
My mother, Bracha, an intelligent and sensitive woman, helped her husband in his difficult, thorny path in life. Her husband's education activities brought her no material wealth. And with her quiet poise and the prayers she would whisper on Sabbath night before Havdalah, my mother brought a soft spirit and purity into the house, which was always bustling with people.
In the 1920's, after the death of my father's father, Isaac Mordecai, who had been a shochet (ritual slaughterer), Reb Zalman and his family moved to Warsaw. There he assumed his father's post of ritual-slaughterer. Although his activity in Zhirardov had ended, his spiritual influence remained there for many years. Even much later the youth recalled his name with longing and appreciation. And in various places even today one can meet former students who express a feeling of reverence for their great teacher.
My father and mother perished during the dark Nazi German years along with all the other holy martyrs. Martyred too with them, in the bloom of their youth, were my sister Breyndel, a gifted Beth Yakov teacher, a graduate of Cracow's Beth Yakov seminary, and my brother, Rabbi Isaac Mordecai, a young genius who had received rabbinic ordination at seventeen. Both were born in Zhirardov. My brother took part in the battles in the Warsaw Ghetto, and his radiant name is numbered among the holy martyrs and heroes who fell in Polish Jewry's last tragic armed struggle. Earth, over not their blood.
Besides the writer of these lines, the other of Reb Zalman's children who has survived is his daughter Sara-Gitl, who lives in Miami Beach with her husband, Joshua Yachsen. The Jerusalem Talmud states: it is not necessary to erect monuments fro the righteous their teachings are their memorial. The memorial for my father, Reb Zalman Klepfisz, is the Torah which he spread and the love for Jewish spirituality which he sowed in others' hearts.
His name deserves to be eternalized among the spiritual heroes that Polish Jewry brought forth on the eve of the Destruction.
Shmuel Mazelshtayn was one of the quietly devoted members and leaders [of the Zionist movement]. He grew up in a pious Hasidic home. His parents were poor, and from early youth on, he devoted all his forces and innate abilities to the effort to become self-supporting, and to be able to lend his parents a helping hand. At the same time, as an autodidact, he constantly worked to educate himself, to acquire culture and knowledge. He read a lot, and had a talent for sharing his knowledge with others. He embraced life. Himself a man of integrity, he demanded seriousness and honesty from others, sometimes a bit harshly. Still, he had a sense of humor, and very much enjoyed a clever joke.
A romantic, he had a deep love for and understanding of music. He worked very hard to learn to play the violin He loved all that was beautiful on God's earth. And so, quietly and diligently, he trod his life's path, working and yearning for something more.
Knowing how to use every minute purposefully, he played an important role in community life in general, and in the Socialist Zionist movement in particular. He was admired for the role he played as one of the leading members in Poalei Tsion, which he represented as an elected official in the last kehile in Zyrardow.
With heartbreak I remember Shmuel Mazelshtayn, a dear friend, comrade, and more.
It seems paradoxical to write about my comrade Menakhem Landau as someone who no longer exists. Whoever knew him at all understands how impossibly contradictory it is to connect such a lively, sparkling, humorous, good person with brutality and tragic death.
The son of Reb Shmuel Menaker, a very pious Hasidic Jew and a scholar, he received a strictly traditional religious education, studying first in heder and then in a shtibl. When he entered secular life, he brought with him the Hasidic zeal of a religious boy gone bad. He was caught up, at first in secret, by Yiddish literature in Zionist brochures.
Having lost his father early on, he had to go to work very young to support his family a mother and sistersand with a strong sense of responsibility he fulfilled this task honorably and without complaint, not like a son and brother, but like a young-old father.
And amazinglyin his whole life and being he remained a youthful, playful, cheerful boy, romantic, humorous, and filled with love of life. An intelligent and kind person and friend, he had a fine and noble soul, and was always ready to help where needed. He was beloved by all.
He possessed a fund of sparkling humor and a weakness for theatrical mimicry and caricature of certain comical types, in the style of Sholem Aleichem. When he performed a monologue or a dramatization as part of a literary evening put on by Merkaz HaTsion, it was a special treat that everyone awaited with impatience. As soon as he appeared on the stage, before he even said a word, he set off a storm of laughter. He was a true man of the Jewish people, a font of healthy humor from which everyone eagerly drank, and for which everyone blessed him.
As a devoted family man, he led a happy life with his wife Dvore (Nisnberg). She was also a good and refined person, who with her joyousness complemented him and created a warm atmosphere in their home. But he didn't isolate himself in his personal happiness; he was a sociable person, an active comrade in the Zionist organization, and an elected representative in the kehile, and was loved by everyone.
It is painfully difficult to write about a dear comrade and friend of my youth, with whom are connected so many experiences and such unforgettable longing especially now, after the great Holocaust of Jewish Poland, on whose soil we grew up together and all the unique aspects of our home town, Zyrardow, whose name has such sad, painfully sweet resonance in my heart. I am speaking of my dear comrade Moyshe who was so brutally and suddenly torn from life, and I cannot believe that this dear, quiet and honorable person and friend is no more.
Moyshe Nayman, or as he was called in our town, Moyshe the Shoykhet's, was born in Zyrardow in 1900. In his traditional Hasidic home he received a strict religious education, studying in a heder, and later as a grown youth in the more advanced courses in a shtibl. When the national renaissance movement spread more broadly and deeper in small and large towns, especially after the Balfour Declaration, he was carried along with the tide. Beginning as a secret member in Tseirei Mizrakhi, while still poring over the religious texts in the shtibl, he threw himself thirstily into everything in print having to do with Zionism. Also, Yiddish literature interested him more and more, and he increasing read it under the covers late at night, by the light of a candle. With growing rebelliousness, he entered onto the new path, quickly joining the general Zionist movement (Merkaz HaTsion), which gave him greater possibilities to develop culturally and live a free life. This inevitably led to very strained and painful relations with his very religious Hasidic family.
His grandfather was Reb Binem Shoykhet, a Gerer Hasid and a great scholar of a certain familiar type, a kindly leader of prayers in shul, whom the Zyrardover kehile relied on for many years to assure their access to the gates of heaven. His father, Reb Dovid Shoykhet, also a great scholar and a religious zealot, could absolutely not reconcile himself to the fact that a child of his could deviate from the correct way. But Moyshe stuck to his own path, and despite all the obstacles, became increasingly active in communal life and in working for Israel especially. Always serious and quiet, he could also be joyful and sing with Hasidic ardor. Always ready to help individuals or the community, he also had the ability to suffer silently, free of envy and gossip. For these reasons he was beloved by friends and acquaintances. All the longing that weighed on and stirred his heart he expressed in the luminously sad songs he sang on those soulful evening strolls in the woods and fields he so loved.
He painfully longed to be able to better support himself. The limited opportunities in the shtetl clipped his wings. The path of his young life was thorny. He longed for sun and life.
He was able to achieve fulfillment only in Israel, where he emigrated in 1926. In Jerusalem, where he first lived, he endured years of unemployment, and, later, bloody unrest. In 1933, he moved to Tel Aviv, and studied for and became a building worker, later working with the large cooperative, Harut. He was able to breathe freely. His coworkers admired him greatly for his friendly and humane relationships with everyone.
A devoted husband and father, he enjoyed family life. Still, he gave every free hour to the Haganah, in which he was very active for many years, beginning with the defense of Jerusalem in 1929, working at the most dangerous watch-posts. And yet his attitude was so simple, direct and modest, as if this was the natural obligation of every Jewish person. He was dedicated to the organization Histadrut, and to the working people of Israel. He loved the country boundlessly, but he was receptive to everything that was beautiful and fine.
He loved life, and paid his dues with hard work, of which he unfortunately did not reap the benefits. He was always pushed off to the side, a shy man, as if afraid to offend anyone. Characteristically, on the day he met with tragedy, he appeared at the watch-post without having been ordered to do so. He was on a short leave after many difficult days and nights. The Arabs had set fire to Jewish property in a Tel Aviv suburb. The firefighters had to work in the most dangerous conditions, in the face of gunfire, and they needed protection. So he couldn't rest at home, and came in on his own initiative, responding to the call of his warm, devoted Jewish heart, and was killed. He would always respond to the appeals and complaints of family and friends by saying, If not me, and not you then who?
He fell only a few days after the news from Lake Success, on the threshold of the realization of his ideal, on December 4, 1947. Symbolically, he had changed his name from Nayman to Nemen (faithful). So he was, faithful to the end. We will always remember his dear and bright memory with love and honor.
|Page 325, right:||Menakhem Landau|
|Page 327:||Moyshe Nayman: Killed as a member of the Haganah, at the beginning of the War of Liberation in Israel, 1947, in Tel Aviv.|
Translated by Debbie Nathan After World War I, Herman Gomolinski organized the first Jewish elementary school taught in Polish. The school was located in three small rooms in Khadak's house. Its personnel were three people: Gomolinski, the administrator and principal; and two younger, women teachers. Their task was far from easy. The children were all different ages, and most did not know what a school was, since schools generally had been closed during the war. The educators had the job of teaching barefoot, hungry, practically grown children how to read. These children helped support their families by working for a livelihood, so it was quite hard for parents to send them to study.
When the hard war times ended and things became a little easier, the school got stronger. After lengthy efforts, Gomolinski got help from a government fund, and the work of the school was significantly broadened and the personnel increased. Gomolinski, who was a government education trustee, was nominated as director of the school. He did everything possible to give the Jewish children a good education. The academic program made up only part of the school, but Gomolinski's students boys and girls had a good reputation in the city. We loved going to school.
Even today I remember the bright Mayuvkes the spring walks in the beautiful nearby woods. Several weeks before a Mayuvke we would already be preparing for it. Instead of sitting in the school's cramped classes, the children and teachers would go to the Skerniewice Forest, where we played under bright sun to the music of different songs.
But this was nothing compared to when the Mayuvkes fell on May 3, the Polish national holiday to honor the Constitution. The day was celebrated with great festivity. After we went into the woods we would have a sort of academy. One of the girl students had prepared a speech about the meaning of the holiday. Singing and declamations would follow. Fela Kayzman often would sing solo. She was a very fine singer. Later we would spread out in the woods, where we enjoyed playing different games. Our songs and laughter echoed through the forest. We remembered a successful Mayuvke for a long time.
By the time we were in fifth grade, the teacher often directed us in plays. Those were hard days for us by day we had to study, and in the evening we stayed at school to get ready for the play. Our effort paid off when we presented it in the House of the People, at a big event for the city. The large auditorium was overflowing and we actors, girls and boys, showed off our stuff in costumes of crepe paper that we had sewn ourselves. We were loudly applauded and called back for encores. Our happiness knew no bounds. For many months afterward, Zyrardow talked about the performance. Even today there is a warm spot in my heart for our teacher, who was truly concerned about our basic education. For many of our generation, Gomolinski's school was primary and fundamental. Some left it for other, more advanced institutions; others entered various occupations. Friendships made at school lasted a very long time even up to now among those who survived the Holocaust.
The school was continually developing. The building got too cramped and the question of a bigger one came up. Gomolinski was always pushing this demand, and the school trustees kept coming back with the excuse that funds were lacking. In the end the dream was realized. A new school building was erected, and Gomolinski was chosen director, despite the fact that at his advanced age, he could have been emeritus. But he did not want to say farewell to the school, so he was the first director and educator in the new building. Everyone who lived in Zyrardow between the two world wars surely remembers the new elementary school, which was named Eliza Orzeszkowa.
When help started coming from America right after the First World War, an aid committee was created in Zyrardow, and Gomolinski busied himself with distributing food and clothing. When Poland created city councils, Gomolinski went onto the Zyrardow City Council as representative of the Jewish population. I do not know how well he represented Jewish interests in Zyrardow. There were people who were not satisfied with his work. The youth who listened to various political organizations and considered themselves informed, thought of Gomolinski as an assimilationist who was divorced from Jewish problems. They thought he did not know the needs and wants of the Jewish masses, and that he was not worthy of representing the Jewish community. The youth started participating in civic life and put up their own candidates for election. Gomolinski's opponents finally managed to eliminate him as representative of the Jews, not just in the Kehillah but also on the City Council.
When Hitler's Holocaust pushed the Zyrardow Jews to Warsaw, Gomolinski, together with his family, was driven into the Warsaw ghetto. He lived and perished in the ghetto along with everyone. He shared the fate of all Jews: the suffering and murder of the millions.
As his student, I wish to include his name in these remembrances.
Translated supplied by Barry Schoenhaut My Uncle Hillel and my Aunt Hana were the wealthiest of their town. They owned a large sugar business. The family consisted of six girls and four boys, all of them as beautiful as the light. Their home was run in a beautiful way.
My uncle though learned, was a bit stingy. Without any good reason, he did not like poor people. My Aunt Hana was my mother's older sister. She was a righteous person. She had a warm, humane heart and liked to help poor and needy people, of whom there was no shortage in our town.
I remember her, always dressed in a wide pleated dress with deep pockets in which there were loose coins and pieces of sugar. This is how she went among the poor and sick and helped them as much as she could. This continued her until her husband Hillel found out what she was doing and no longer let her near the cash drawer.
But this did not stop her from doing her charitable work. She possessed a golden chain - a wedding gift. It was made up of links that could be separated and, because the chain was so long, individual links could be removed without anyone noticing. Berel the goldsmith knew how to do this very well. She did it so that she could continue with her help to the poor and had one link after another removed from her golden chain until the last one.
When Hitler's gangsters killed the six million of our nation they were not able to destroy the spiritual treasures that emanate from our generations past and are with us still today. Among these tragically cut off, shining figures glows my Aunt's golden chain with its removed links. These golden links will help us on our way ahead, and the one remaining link will one day be a whole chain again.
For many years, we lived in the house at 19 May First Street, formerly known as Viskitska Street. The front part of the house had formerly belonged to my father's uncle, Reb Yisroel Epstein. A tinsmith, a very pious Jew, and a scholar, he was among the very first Jews to settle in Zyrardow. He was also one of the few Jewish artisans privileged to work in the great linen factory in its earliest years. Later, ownership of the house passed to my father, who added a large two-story annex in the long courtyard.
It was in this house that first Merkaz Hazioni, and later, the Poalei Tsion groups Ts.S. and Freedom, were located. And so the house became a very popular community address. Incidentally, many years earlier (before World War I), the shtiblekh of the burial society, and of the Gerer and Alexander Hasidim had been located in the large courtyard of the house, and for many years the sound of Torah study was heard there.
I remember how, in my early childhood, my rabbi (teacher), Itshe-Mayer Radziner had his heder there. I remember so well the straw-filled sleeping bench on which we boys sat at the table, pretending to be studying, while making paper birds under the table. And when, once in a while, we were released for a few minutes into the courtyard to get some air, we flew down the steps in a roar, the skirts of our coats spread out, like a herd of geese with outspread wings. All in all, it had always been a very homey courtyard.
I remember how, at Sukkes time, the people from the orchards would drive in with heavily loaded wagons of fragrant fall and winter apples, which they hid in the straw spread out in the large attics and in the well-built cellars of the brick annex. There was quite a bit of commotion, and later, when they had already sold all the fruit during the winter months, and had already returned the keys to my father, we children would rummage in the straw to unearth the treasure of little apples left behind.
In later years, there was another kind of commotion around our warehouses, where the big paint, clay and whitewash businesses were located, especially in the season before Passover and the high holidays. The peasants and painters would pour in and the entire area was full of colorful bustle and shouting.
Over the years a very close connection developed between our home and the Zionist organizations mentioned above, especially Poalei Tsion, to the degree that the boundary between home and the organizations was erased. This was due to the involvement of my grown-up siblings in these organizations, as well as my own leadership position in the ideological and cultural work of the organizations. The official and actual address for all organizational matters and correspondence was that of our family home.
I recall that we would often borrow coal and wood from my father's own supplies to heat the oven in our organizational quarters, because our treasury was as empty and cold as the window panes. If an emissary, or a respected writer or speaker from the central organization came to town, our home was the first place they would go to be officially welcomed.
Just as the voices of young religious scholars had once resounded in the courtyard, now there were heard different kinds of songs and sounds on nationalist and socialist themes, from the new young generation who carried on late into the night, astir with activism and lust for life.
My parents, Reb Itshe Leyzer and Rivkele, ran a friendly, down to earth and well-off merchant's home, where between parents and children there had been established, earlier than in many other similar families of their class, a kind of unwritten agreement, a de facto recognition, that the grown children would live in a different way. Of course, this happened only after a struggle, a kind of culture war. This was manifested in the greater freedom the children and their friends enjoyed in our home, and their membership and active participation in the first Jewish library, and in forming new organizations.
My father was the type of Jewish businessman who still wore the traditional long coat. Nevertheless, as a compromise, his blond beard was discretely trimmed. He had intelligent, expressive eyes and was of medium height. He was very quick, both in his thinking and in his movements. He was very good with people, and at the same time had the businessman's seriousness and practicality, and a sharp sense of humor. His pen always in his left hand, he worked on his accounts and sometimes threatened his household (there were 9 children) with the prospect of a deficit.
In essence, he was an optimist, a man of faith. He possessed a wealth of aphorisms and Biblical quotations applicable to various subjects and situations. He was full of simple and sound wisdom about life, to which others ascribed his exceptional achievements and business success which were greatly exaggerated by his over-effusive admirers.
He was always aware of what was going on in the community and people often came to him for advice, or asked him to serve as a kind of arbitrator in conflicts between business partners, or disputes over an inheritance. Although he was always busy and in a rush, he nevertheless knew how to enjoy the shabes and holidays.
I recall that when he was in a good humor, he liked to jokingly use the word comrades, which for him had a special flavor and meaning, because he remembered it and had inherited it from those bygone days in the shtetl in 1905-06, when the revolutionaries gathered near our imported-goods shop. They even sat on top of the sacks of food in the shop that in those years was in my grandfather's family home, opposite the gate of the large linen factory. Groups of strikers and young people would come in to buy cigarettes, drink lemonade and soda water with juice, and talk about the Tsar. By the way, a curious thing: the sign for our grandfather's store bore a painting of a fish, a symbol of prosperity.
My father very much liked to do favors for people in the town an impoverished neighbor, to whom he would lend money without interest, or someone for whom he more than once paid, like a father. He tried very hard to avoid withholding or delaying payment to an artisan.
Over the course of the years, he was also active in various groups, beginning as a co-founder in the administration of the first savings and loan fund, the council of the employers' association that provided aid for poor travelers, and in the general assistance committee after the events of 1929 in Israel, to which he was especially devoted. He contributed to the Jewish National Fund. In the 1930's he was elected dozor in the kehile, as a member of a popular, non-affiliated slate, and was also a vice-president.
He could never remain silent about a wrong done to anyone, no matter who, even at risk of harm or danger to himself, as often happened, although he was no strongman. I remember instances, in the normal times of the past, when Polish riff raff, or even a soldier gone wild, would harass a Jew. He would try to dissuade them, or shame them. But there were times when he barely escaped with his life.
My mother, Rifkele Itshe-Leyzer's as they called her in our town, had a refined appearance and character, and was an intelligent woman whose every word was thought out in advance. She had an unusually good sense of humor, often ironic, often on target.
She was also interested in and concerned about her community. In addition to the far from easy job of her day to day home life, as a devoted mother and beloved baleboste, she worked in my father's business. She always tried, under all kinds of conditions, and with all her powers, to maintain the honor and respectability of her household. This was no easy task, given the growing needs of a large household, even in a prosperous middle class home. Despite all of this, she was always ready to lend her ear and her heart to another person's complaints and always ready to do whatever possible to help a respectable family, or a sick person. And I should also mention, to her credit, her devoted efforts as a leader of the women's committee that in 1924 collected gold, silver and jewelry for the Jewish National Fund, for which she was highly praised by the central committee in Warsaw. She had a special talent for observing and imitating, in words and action, different types of people, with a good natured sense of humor.
Against the background of this account, it becomes easier to understand the relatively liberal attitude of my parents toward the highly developed commitment toward social activism that was a trait shared by almost all of my siblings. And here, I remember all of my dear loved ones.
Beginning with my oldest sister, Rokhl-Nekhe (died in America in 1950,) who was among the founders of the first Jewish community library in the shtetl. She participated in theater productions of a local drama circle, and later became very active in the multi-faceted aid work of the women's circle of the Zyrardover branch of the Workman's Circle in America, in general, and especially in aiding our Holocaust survivors, who always remember her with respect and heartfelt thanks.
Also, myself, a hopeless community activist, beginning as the youngest committee member of the Zionist organization in 1916 to the present time.
My sister Gele, long may she live, (now in Israel), who already as a young girl distinguished herself with an innate dramatic talent, in song, in recitation, and mostly in acting, and who was later active in the leadership of the I.L. Peretz Library, and whose participation in any literary, artistic or theatrical production guaranteed its moral and material success.
And my sister Dvore, who with great imagination could imitate comical scenes and types, and create humorous and satirical word plays, and who would often turn the house upside-down with her ideas and doings. At such moments my mother would shout at her, half-serious, half-good natured: Enough, already you sorceress! She was gentle, loving, and good-hearted.
Next comes my sister Gutshe, the bright one, with her intelligent sensibility for literature and music. So, too, my sister Brayndl, with her dark good looks and gentleness, with her quiet, heart-felt singing.
And my dear brother Mendl, smart and cheerful, the devoted brother and comrade in the party who did everything without seeking glory for himself, modest and dedicated until his tragic end.
Next we come to my two youngest sisters Feygele and Perele, whose names (little bird and little pearl) suited them so well, reflecting and symbolizing many of the qualities of their souls lightness, joyfulness, full of song, charm each complementing the other, around whom so many friends from the group Freedom would gather.
Many years have passed since I left my dear ones behind. I can still see them before me, the Sabbaths and the holidays in our home, each with their special decorations and moods. And our dear parents, with love and care, dreamed the golden dream of Jewish parents, of nakhes, which is sure to come, of the continuity of future generations, until the Nazi murderers came and with horrible brutality destroyed their dreams.
|Reb Itshe Leyzer and his wife Rifkele Nisnberg.|
|Page 309:||The Nisnberg family in 1934, before the Aliyah of Yoself Nisnberg, his wife and children, to Erets Yisroel.
From right to left, standing: Daughters Dvora, Brayndl, Feygele; son Mendl: granddaughter by oldest daughter Rokhl Nekhe, Perele (now in New York); the future son-in-law Shmuel Mazelshtayn; daughter Gutshe; son Yosef (now in Israel).
Seated: Son-in law Menakhem-Landau; daughter Rokhl-Nekhe (died 1950 in New York); father Itshe Leyzer; his wife Rifkele; daughter-in-law Tobtshe (Yosef's wife), holding their child, Moyshe-Leybele (both now in Israel).
Seated in the front: youngest daughter Feygele (sic; one of the Feygeles listed must be daughter Perele ), and two grandchildren, Leyele Birnboym (now in New York) and Shmulike Landau. Only those in New York and Israel survived. All the others were killed by the Nazis.
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